Cody Bellinger’s Dodgers tenure made me recalibrate my definitions for ceilings and floors when evaluating baseball players. He reached the highest of highs during his time in Los Angeles, but then hit rock bottom, including an incredibly frustrating 2022 season that accelerated his ouster.
Drafted by the Dodgers in the fourth round in 2013, Bellinger worked his way up to near the top of prospect lists, combining power with the speed and dexterity to play plus defense at both first base and in center field. He set the National League rookie home run record in 2017 in winning Rookie of the Year unanimously, then two years later became just the third player drafted by the Dodgers to win an MVP award with the team, along with Steve Garvey and Clayton Kershaw.
Bellinger’s 152 home runs rank 16th in Dodgers history despite playing only six seasons for the team. His 17.8 bWAR is fourth-most among all 2013 draftees, behind only Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, and Tim Anderson, who were picked three rounds ahead of Bellinger.
Bellinger’s 2019 season was one for the ages, hitting 47 home runs while winning a Gold Glove in center. His 8.6 bWAR that season is seventh-most by a Dodgers position player, and his 7.7 fWAR ranks 12th in team history. It’s not reasonable to expect this type of season from anybody. Bellinger’s 2019 season set a standard he couldn’t possibly repeat, but even normal, non-MVP Bellinger was incredibly productive.
Even with a dip in 2020, Bellinger was still an above-average hitter with excellent defense. Extrapolating that season over a full 162 games, he was right in line with his roughly four-win campaigns in 2017 and 2018. Bellinger even punctuated that 2020 season with a pennant-winning home run, cementing his place in Dodgers lore.
Bellinger’s 2021 season was a disaster, one driven by injuries, first the dislocation of his shoulder that required surgery and sapped his power, then the broken tibia that altered his swing mechanics after costing him two months on the shelf. It was easy to write off 2021 as a lost year because of injuries, but Bellinger was healthy enough in 2022 to start 135 games and bat 550 times.
He just didn’t hit.
April was his best month, with a .713 OPS in 20 games, one of only two months all season with a slugging percentage of at least .400. Bellinger’s .303 on-base percentage in May was his highest of the year.
Bellinger hit .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs and a 83 wRC+. He had the fourth-worst on-base percentage by a Dodger with at least 500 plate appearances in a season in franchise history, and the worst since Alfredo Griffin (.258) in 1990.
Bellinger had his highest strikeout rate (27.3 percent) and his lowest walk rate (6.9 percent). His .179 isolated power was better than when he cratered in an injured 2021 (.137), but still a far cry from his standard set from 2017-20 (.274). He was lost at the plate more often than not.
He still provided plus defense in center field, with seven Outs Above Average, and plus-eight in Total Zone Rating. That was enough to keep Bellinger in the lineup most of the year, especially when facing right-handed pitchers, against whom he started 102 of 114 regular season games.
But that ended in the National League Division Series, when Bellinger did not start Games 3 or 4 of the NLDS against the Padres.
With arbitration looming for a final time this offseason, and a projected $18.1-million salary through that process on the horizon, Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers on November 18.
Bellinger’s Dodgers career was a great one, but it ended with a huge bummer.
Stats: .210/.265/.389, 83 wRC+, 19 HR, 27 doubles, 14 SB, 1.2 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR
Salary: $17 million
Game of the year
Bellinger hit only .213/.250/.333 with a paltry 63 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers in 2022, so when the Dodgers faced the Giants on July 22 at Dodger Stadium with a week and a half before the trade deadline, I tweeted this:
The trade deadline would be useful for the Dodgers to add someone that Dave Roberts would be willing to use to pinch hit for Cody Bellinger against a LHP— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) July 23, 2022
Bellinger was facing Sam Long with the bases loaded with two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game. Less than a minute after my tweet, Bellinger launched a ball into the seats just inside of the right field foul pole for a grand slam.
It was one of two home runs against lefties on the season for Bellinger, and his only home run on an 0-2 count. As you might expect, the Dodgers won that game.
Bellinger’s seven career grand slams are second-most in Los Angeles Dodgers history, tied with Matt Kemp and just one behind Mike Piazza.
Bellinger signed a one-year deal with the Cubs worth a guaranteed $17.5 million, getting near what he might have made through arbitration. The Dodgers host the Cubs next April 14-16 at Dodger Stadium, so get ready for a robust video tribute and a well-deserved standing ovation.